In a perfect world, my cousin Sima and I would have grown up together. Almost exactly a year apart, we would have talked in secret code, tormented our younger siblings and giggled together at family seders. We would have shared our adolescent crushes and angst, and danced at each other's weddings.
But in 1912, at 22, my grandfather, Velvel Schneider, left the village of Bar, Ukraine, for the United States. Sima's grandfather, Pinya Schneider, remained in Russia. The brothers never again set eyes on each other, rarely even exchanging letters.
Growing up, I knew generally that we had family in Russia. But it wasn't until 1990, when Glasnost began dismantling the Iron Curtain and Russian émigrés began streaming into Israel and the United States, that I felt a deep need and a compelling curiosity to seek out my Russian relatives.I enlisted the support of my mother, who discovered a manila envelope among the belongings of my grandfather, who had died in 1986 at 95. Inside were several frayed envelopes, postmarked in the 1950s and 1960s, addressed in English to my grandparents in the Midwest. The return addresses were written in Russian, from the Ukrainian cities of Bar, Berditchev and Odessa.
In June 1990, we sent letters to all the Russian addresses. "We are the daughter and granddaughter of Velvel Schneider..."
In October 1990, a letter arrived from Odessa. "I am the granddaughter of Pinya Schneider..." And so began my friendship with my cousin Sima, who was living in her grandparents' former apartment.
My mother, my son Gabe, 13, and I are now sitting in the living room of Sima's apartment in Brooklyn, almost 10 years after locating each other. She emigrated here with her husband. Her mother, who is my mother's first cousin, lives nearby. So do her son, daughter-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter. It is the first time Sima and I have met in person, though we have exchanged countless letters, phone calls, photos, confidences and gifts since the initial contact.
My mother has brought the photo album that she inherited from her parents. With the help of Sima and her mother, Anna, we are putting names, relationships and personalities to faces of previously unknown people, people in stark black-and-white as well as softer sepia-toned pictures, some dating back to the early 1900s, many with Russian handwriting on the back.
There is a photo of Sima at 3 or 4, sitting on a sled in a snow-covered park in Odessa. Her grandfather and uncle stand behind her.
There is Sima at 16, a school picture.
There is Sima at her wedding, at 20, with her husband, Valera.
"How did these get into your photo album?" Sima asks incredulously, knowing that the families were barely in contact.
Her mother, Anna, tells us in Russian, and Sima translates, that a package of clothing from my grandfather arrived for Pinya after World War II. Pinya was afraid to write even a short thank-you note. His son, Sasha, had recently started working as a journalist in Odessa, and Pinya feared jeopardizing his job.
"But someone sent these photos," my mother says. "Someone proud of your family. Someone who wanted to keep a connection."
"And somehow," she adds, "my father learned of Pinya's death in 1966. He said 'Kaddish' for him. My father loved his brother."
"We always knew Pinya had a brother who went to America," Sima says. "We heard he left before being drafted into the army."
"No," my mother answers. "My father enlisted in the Russian Army. He wanted to prove that Jews could be good soldiers. But for an entire year, because he was Jewish, he cleaned latrines. He deserted the army.
"He was planning to get married," she continues. "But my mother, who had been a Bolshevik, detested the Bolsheviks as much as the czarists. She agreed to marry him only in Palestine or America."
My mother tells the rest of the story: how my grandfather left Russia on the Galveston Plan and first worked in Memphis, in a foundry for a dollar a day; how he moved up the Mississippi River to Rock Island, Illinois, and sent for my grandmother; how Velvel Schneider became William Snyder.
Sima tells us about her grandfather, a handsome, good-humored and magnetic man. He worked all his life in the lumber industry, a specialist in different kinds of wood. People traveled great distances, even from foreign countries, to seek his advice.
"It is a tragedy that these two brothers were not together," Sima says, shaking her head.
My grandfather's two other siblings suffered worse fates. His younger brother, Moshe Leib, was drafted into the Russian Army in World War I and sent to the Austrian front, where he was killed in his first week of combat. His older sister Pearl, her husband and four of their six children were murdered by the Nazis.
For three days and nights, my cousin Sima and I, along with our mothers and my son Gabe, in a mixture of English, Yiddish and Russian, share these stories. As we stroll around Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, staring out at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and along the Brighton Beach boardwalk, as we walk around the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, we reconstruct our families' parallel histories.
We eat elaborate, multicourse Russian meals, graciously prepared by Sima and her mother, and we compare physical traits and dispositions, proclivities and professions, marriages and children and religion."Did you know you were Jewish?" I ask.
"Of course," Sima answers. She tells me that her passport identified her as "Jewish," but that nobody talked about it - or knew what it meant.
"Did you celebrate Jewish holidays?"
She replies that on Passover her father went to the synagogue, very early, and bought one box of matzah. He brought it home wrapped in layers of newspapers so nobody could see.
"What about Yom Kippur?"
"Nothing. We did nothing. We knew nothing."
"But your son became a bar mitzvah?"
"Yes." But she tells me it wasn't a religious experience. "We got together at the apartment. We closed the curtains. We celebrated."
Sima pauses. "You can't understand, Jane," she says. "You can't understand what it was like to live under the Communists, under the KGB."
No, I can't understand. No matter how many questions I ask. No matter how many details she and Anna provide.
I can't understand how Sima could grow up living in only one room with her parents and her brother, sharing a single kitchen and bathroom with two other families.
I can't understand how her parents waited 25 years for a telephone.
And, most of all, I can't understand the cruelty of the Soviet government and the gut-wrenching sundering and separating of families.
But I do understand that Sima and I could easily have lived each other's lives. That I could be the recent émigré, courageously struggling at midlife to learn a new language, to adjust to a new culture and to work in a new job.
I do understand why Grandpa Bill spit every time he uttered the word "Russia."
And I do understand, intuitively and profoundly, how pleased Grandpa Bill would be that we have rediscovered, reconnected with and fallen in love with the family of his beloved brother.
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